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The Children’s Book Review | March 24, 2020
Raven Howell is an award-winning children’s author and poet of nine picture books. She writes poetry for a variety of children’s magazines including Highlights, The School Magazine, Humpty Dumpty, and Cricket. Frequently sharing book presentations and writing workshops with children in schools and libraries, Raven also serves as Creative & Publishing Advisor with Red Clover Reader. Her family, long dawn hikes, being at the beach, and munching on warm butterscotch chocolate chip cookies straight out of the oven are all sources of writing inspiration. We chatted with her about her latest book, A Flock of Fun.
Falling asleep can feel stressful at times, especially when the mind begins to overthink. A Flock of Fun takes this stress away by poking fun and creating a lighthearted view of the situation. Was this your reason, or part of the reason, for writing it?
Falling asleep can be just as stressful for children as it is for adults. A child’s reasons for restlessness may be different. Perhaps a young boy worries about his sick pet or a kindergartener needs to release anxiety about a friend’s comments from earlier in the day. It may prove unproductive to simply attempt to tuck in a child at bedtime and instruct them to sleep. In other words, the lamp is turned out, yet eyes remain wide open.
I had been reading research about how helpful it is to allow a child to release the concerns of the day before bedtime. Your daughter may feel much more relaxed for sleep time after she paints and draws out pictures of her feelings in colors and shapes. Maybe the child needs to pull out his trunk of stuffed animals and create an animal parade before he can snuggle under the blankets feeling security and calmness. That was the motivating theme behind writing A Flock of Fun.
The moon is shining brightly, and a young boy lies in his bed awake—the brightness of the moon keeps him awake. David Barrow brings your rhyming text to life with humor and beautiful purpled hues that perfectly convey the too bright night. Is this the first time you’ve collaborated with him?
It’s the first time I’ve collaborated with David Barrow, but I hope it’s not the last. He has a wonderful gift of not only the use of color for creating atmosphere but accurately conveying the quirkiness of childhood in his characters. And the sheep getting into A Flock of Fun trouble is illustratively comical! To quote a 5-year-old after reading our book, “My favorite part is where the sheep only wear the underwear and eat candy. They’re cute in underpants….”
Do you have a favorite illustration from A Flock of Fun?
I am a moon gazer. The pages with the bright, expressive moon looking in on the sneaky sheep and pondering the slimy snail on the windowpane are my favorites! In fact, I was significantly taken when I first saw the art drafts because it reminded me of my first child’s toddler years when he was just starting to talk. During a family after-dinner walk, or from his stroller, if the moon gleamed, he’d very enthusiastically point toward the sky and say, “Moo! Moo…”, not quite adding the “n” on it yet. It was endearing that he experienced the moon magically night after night. David, rendering the moon itself as a character in the story, similarly portrayed it so charmingly to my happy surprise.
What has been the best response from a reader so far?
The best response so far has been from a preschooler who has named every one of those little sheep from the pages of the book. Her mother said A Flock of Fun is their go-to book now every night. Children love repetition. It makes them feel safe and sure of themselves by knowing what’s going to happen next.
When the boy’s room becomes a giant mess because of the flock of sheep, he decides that it might be best to count snails. What made you settle on using snails as the counterpart to sheep? Did you ever consider using a different animal in the early drafts of the manuscript?
Yes, originally the boy in the book decided to try counting turtles! I was looking for slow and somewhat dull-in-action critters. A turtle sequence was in my original manuscript that was accepted for publication.
The senior editor and I worked for many months revising and polishing the rhyme, the plot and pace of the story, and thus silly silver snails slimed in!
Poetry and rhyme are definitely in your wheelhouse. How quickly did the verses for A Flock of Fun come to you?
The inspiration for the story hit me at once when I came upon a wonderful children’s illustration of a child attempting to sleep while playful sheep frolicked in the room. I remember writing the complete manuscript draft within just a couple of writing sessions. Each of those sessions probably lasted several hours apiece.
It was during that stage of development I had to decide on whether A Flock of Fun was heading in the direction of ending up as a long poem or on the path to a rhyming picture book text. Once the message, the arch, and the mystery/question were integrated and then smoothed out, it was clear we were in book territory.
So, to answer your question, the verses and rhyme came rather quickly, however, from that initial stage, I spent lots and lots of time over many months, re-thinking, revising and bettering it!
Counting sheep is an age-old concept for winding down at bedtime. Do you ever use this method yourself?
Apparently, during Medieval times, shepherds were obligated to headcount their sheep every night. So before they could go to sleep themselves, they counted their sheep to account for the flock. Over time, it became an idiom, and I know some people use counting as a mental exercise in order to fall asleep.
Personally, I don’t count sheep, however, I do invite and dream up sheep shenanigans and snail trails before I doze off.
You write poetry for a variety of magazines such as Highlights for Children, Highlights Hello, HighFive, Babybug, Ladybug, Spider, Cricket, Jack and Jill, Humpty Dumpty, Fun for Kidz, and The School Magazine. How does writing poetry for magazines differ from picture books?
My first children’s literary joy was writing verse for children’s magazines. I always enjoy the challenge of writing poetry for a specific theme a magazine is looking for, or a certain age group. That’s how magazine writing differs from writing poetry for a book. With a short poetry piece in a magazine, you need to be succinct, zero in on the reader’s age and use old time-tested themes in a fresh way. We live in a world of more distractions now and shorter attention spans, therefore writing poetry to accommodate for that is key.
On the other hand, writing a book is a little like an artist setting up a clean white canvas and pulling out her paints and smock and allowing the day’s inspiration to tug her along. What will you plant and seed in this open meadow?
You have also been songwriting from the moment you sat down at the piano during your elementary school years. Since graduating school, you’ve worked at various NYC record companies and had the opportunity to meet and work with artists such as Snoop Dogg, AC/DC, and Jewel, and even ran into Mick Jagger! Can you tell us how meeting and working with some of these artists may have inspired how you write for children?
I was always loyal and dedicated to the work first and foremost, whether a poem, story, song, or greeting card verse. Working with all these amazing talents in my 20’s -singers, musicians, songwriters- reaffirmed passion and commitment to the art. These stars exude flash and fun on stage, yet behind the scenes, their music and songs were at the heart of what mattered the most to them. In that sense, I experience my children’s poems and books as the little literary beloveds they are.
Ever since I could remember, I’ve always gravitated toward whimsical writings. I never had that “a-ha!” moment (“I should write for children!”). Even my song lyrics leaned toward childlike innocence and inspirational word from the start.
Is there anything else that you would like to share about yourself, A Flock of Fun, or any future books?
Thanks so much for giving me this delightful opportunity to connect! Look through the book, cover to cover. See if you can find a small green clover (sheep food!). Hint: it’s not quite in an illustration. I’d love to hear from you, so let me know if you can find it!
In sending you cheerful regards, I’m happy to share a new poem for everyone:
To learn more about Raven Howell, visit her website: www.ravenhowell.com.
Written by Raven Howell
Illustrated by David Barrow
Publisher’s Synopsis: A young child discovers the solution for falling asleep is not always quiet and silent, like counting slow, slimy snails. Sometimes, a room full of happy dances, shirts in a tie-dyed swirl, and mischief-making sheep are just the ticket!
Ages 3-8 | Publisher: Doodle and Peck Publishing | February 2, 2020 | ISBN-13: 978-1733717083
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This interview—Raven Howell Discusses ‘A Flock of Fun’—was conducted between Raven Howell and Bianca Schulze. For similar books and articles, follow along with our content tagged with Bedtime Stories, David Barrow, Raven Howell, and Sheep.